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Press ‘Yes’ for the future

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
New technology has been integrated into the Unicoi County Commission meetings through first-generation software specially designed for the Commission’s voting procedures.
Commissioners gathered on Thursday to learn how the system works and to complete a run-through.
“The benefits of this are going to start from day one and continue on,” said Unicoi County Clerk Mitzi Bowen, who spearheaded the system’s implementation.
“It’s a work in progress,” Bowen said. “We’re working every day on it. We tried to make it as simple as possible for the commissioners sitting there to vote. Behind the scenes, I’m doing a lot to make sure the right screens come up for them.”
The system setup includes a projection screen as well as a new iPad for each commissioner.
Each iPad is linked to an operating system, which records votes and flashes them on the screen.
The system allows the commission to work through the agenda line-by-line and adheres to Robert’s Rules for meeting conduct. Internet usage was made available through Darren Shelton, who has an existing connection to which the new voting system is linked, Bowen said.
Bowen said that as time passes they will keep adding new features to the voting system, such as pre-existing microphones for even more accurate meeting minutes and video capabilities for the community to be able to watch live online.
“This is the first stages that we’re doing as far as the voting system,” she said. “We’re going to let them get the hang of it first. Once they get the hang of it then we’re going to implement the recording devices and videoing.”
Bowen said the idea came from the need for meeting efficiency as well as inspiration while on a trip to Nashville.
She said an Illinois-based company showed off their voting machine technology, but it didn’t come close to what the commission has now.
“There were a few of us, county clerks, who did not want to go with a company out of state,” Bowen said. “We wanted to keep things local. So we went to our local tech people and asked them to come up with a software system.”
On Thursday, individuals from Business Information Services, the company that designed the software, were standing by to help answer questions and to listen to commissioners’ suggestions on how to improve the system’s setup before their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, July 23.
Chairperson Sue Jean Wilson said that she is excited, yet “apprehensive” about using the new system so soon, since the commission will be learning as they go.
“I think overall, once all of us get used to the iPad and get more comfortable with it, that will be beneficial,” said Wilson before the regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.
“I really haven’t had an opportunity until tonight’s meeting to know,” she said. “I’m a little apprehensive since it’s the first time and we weren’t able to bring them home and practice or anything. It’s going to be probably a little nerve racking. It’s just like getting a new laptop, you have to get used to it and learn by doing. and that’s what we’ll be doing.”
One change to the way the commission conducts meetings is the voting procedure, Bowen said. No longer will commissioners hear the votes of others before anyone else.
Bowen said votes will not be displayed on the screen until every commissioner has made a decision and entered it on their devices.
“Come Monday night those votes won’t be shown until all votes are tallied,” she said. “I’ll ask if all the votes are in; if they say yes, I’ll tally them. That’s when they will see who voted what for what.”
Bowen said the chairperson will still be in control of the meeting’s order, but Bowen will already be able to have more accurate minutes through the system’s record of voting and commissioner attendance.
“It will have a timestamp for each commissioner when they log in,” she said. “I’ll be able to know when they get here and if they have stepped out.”
The company BIS, located in Piney Flats, has been working on the system for a while, Bowen said. “We’re the first county to have this,” she said. “We are the pilot county, or the guinea pigs as you call it. We’ll work out all the kinks. Overall, I think it’s going to work out very well.”
Bowen said she’s aware of other counties that are interested in using the new equipment.
“Actually they wanted to come Monday night to the meeting, but I told them to give the commissioners some time to work with the system,” she said. “They are wanting to come up and look and watch to see if they would also be interested in purchasing something like this from BIS.”
The cost for the system, Bowen said, was a little over $9,000 and came from her office’s reserve account. She said the cost could be offset if the county finds the right ways to use the system.
“I didn’t ask for any extra money within the budget,” she said. “I didn’t ask for any extra money from the commissioners or taxpayers. Also, I’m hoping we can get a sponsorship.”
Bowen explained that a sponsorship would allow a local company the opportunity to display their logo on the projection screen alongside of the agenda. “If they want to be a sponsorship to this, it might help pay for the system, which would go into the general fund,” Bowen said. “It’s going to pay for itself anyway by not using paper, a deputy and, of course, gas.”
The county commission, Bowen said, has since requested to go completely paperless with the new system in place.
“By going paperless with it, that means we can scan in and send their agendas and everything to them,” she said. “This will allow, of course, not using paper, which is an expense to the county and plus it will also save the time that an officer has to spend in order to serve those documents to the commissioners. Plus, gas will be saved on serving them.”
Wilson said that the technology benefits her job as well as Bowen’s job during the meetings.
“I think it’s going to be very helpful especially for [Bowen] and her people,” she said. “It will help because sometimes the men don’t speak up. Now I can see on the screen what is happening.”
The county won’t be the only ones benefiting from the new technology, Bowen said.
She thinks members of the public who attend meetings seem lost and the new technology will help them get a better understanding on what the commission is discussing or voting. She said citizens may not have known what document was being voted on in the past, but now the projection screen will clarify any confusion.
“They’ll know exactly what the commission is talking about,” she said.
Bowen said this technology is one of the best ways to ensure meeting efficiency, but more importantly it creates a new way to include the citizens in the decision-making processes forwarded by them to the commissioners.
“It’s just about keeping up with modern technology,” Bowen said. “As far as making it more friendly for the public, I’m hoping it will get the public more involved. It should get them more involved as far as knowing more. I think that’s the way it should be. The public should know more.”
Wilson said the technology will help future generations of commissioners to make the most out of their meetings with the public.
“I look forward to our county government moving forward into the future,” she said. “We need to do that and be proactive so that those that come after us, they’ll already know how to use it and it will be in place,” Wilson said. “It will make things much easier for them.”